The Sinhalese, who are the majority community in Sri Lanka, have been changing their names through history to suit existing conditions and meet their aspirations.
Sinhalese names have always had a socio-cultural and historical basis. Often they indicate the caste of the bearer. But changes have been taking place in this sphere as a result of social and economic mobility. High-status family names are being taken in place of low-caste names, says cultural anthropologist Dr. M.W.Amarasiri de Silva of the University of California in his study of name changes among the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka published in 2016.
Dr. de Silva says that the phenomenon of changing one’s name is a sign of the emergence of a “class system” where one’s name is seen as a “status reflector” rather than as a “caste identifier”. This has been facilitated by economic and spatial mobility, and the simultaneous loosening of traditional community, locality and caste ties.
The “individualized” modern Sri Lankan now tends to overlook traditional social structural factors or family and cultural expectations that restrict his life choices in matters such as marriage, employment and residence. This has enabled (and often necessitated) a change in the name.
Name-changers are often “consensually” married outside the traditional framework of parents arranging the marriage. Sometimes consensual marriages are across caste lines. The name-changers seek employment away from their original village, and typically, in an urban area. They are also engaged in non-traditional occupations.
Interestingly, while on the one hand, caste and traditional norms are being broken, there is an eagerness to be seen as a high-caste person. This is fulfilled by acquiring a high-caste name and/or surname, through an officially sanctioned name-changing process. Sometimes, the new name taken is a Sanskritic one in place of a traditional/rural Sinhalese, Portuguese or British name.
Hierarchy of Names
In the Kandyan period (1474-1815), there were two kinds of family names: the honorific or Patabendi names and the ordinary of non-Patabendi names. Patabendi names were conferred by the Kings for conspicuous military exploits and were generally given to the dominant Radala Goigama landed aristocracy, according to Dr.de Silva. These names were passed down the generations in the family.
During the British period, Patabendi names were given to officials from non-Goigama castes also. Historian Gananath Obeyesekere noted that, over time, there was a “mass usurpation” of honorific names among the dominant Goigama caste and to some extent among the Karavas also, to move up the social ladder.
Among Low Country (non-Kandyan) castes, such as the Karava, Salagama and Durava, Pelapath Nam (name) is used to denote the family name, though the acquisition of Patabendi Nam has also been documented.
Persons can be identified by their Vasagama names, or names indicating the place of origin. During the Kandyan period, the ordinary Goigama (non-Radala) people without Patabendi names used Vasagama names.
In the Kandyan kingdom, the so-called low castes were identified by a “Ge” or “house” name, such as Ihala Gedera “house located at the upper elevation” or Pahala Gedera “house located at the lower elevation.” Others were identified with their father’s name, for example, Ukkuwage Puncha or “Puncha, the son of Ukkuwa.”
Since Ge (house or family) names and personal names that denote “low-caste,” are regarded as a barrier for socialization, Vasagama, honorifics and patronymics of the high castes are adopted.
Anthropologist Nur Yalman had drawn attention to the fact that marrying into a higher caste and acquiring the name of the higher caste was another practice. Gananath Obeyesekere had reported group efforts to take a high-status name. In Hinidumpattuwa, he says, the rich and powerful, who were emancipated from the ordinary caste and kin groups, formed new social bonds with similarly powerful and rich families of the same caste in the region and assumed honorifics.
Dr. de Silva adds that while name changes are a necessary and an accepted form of eliminating the lingering notion of the caste-related lowness of a person, they are not a sufficient condition for upward mobility. Economic power and financial clout are needed to validate one’s claim to high caste or high social status.
Dr. de Silva studied name-change notices in Sinhalese newspapers from 1993 to 1995 and also 1976. Between 1993 and 2012, there were 12,063 notifications or 4,021 notifications per year. About 71% of those who assumed new family names had changed their caste status from a “low caste” to that of Goigama or Radala Goigama. The persons who changed their family names were predominantly male (about 70%). It is likely that these individuals were young males who aspired to move up the social ladder through employment and marriage, de Silva says.
The percentage of females among those changing their family name increased from 22.5% in 1976 to 33.3 % in 1995, indicating that females of the non-Goigama castes were also increasingly becoming socially mobile and aspiring to change their social status.
As for the geographical distribution of family name-changers, higher percentages were found in urban areas such as Colombo, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Anuradhapura, and Badulla. These accounted for about 50%. Interestingly, districts in the south, though very populous, had relatively few notifications of family name changes.
Among all the name changes, family name changes among the non-Goigama castes were the most frequent. Of the total number of people who changed their family names, 64% were Sinhalese from non-Goigama castes. These were the non-Goigama of the Bathgama, Naketi, Dura, Hena, and Vahumpura castes.
Dr. de Silva notes that omitting family names that denote caste status and assuming new Ge (house or family) names is a trend among the “low castes”. Although the new Ge names resemble Goigama family names, they are not the usual Goigama family names. Such new family names are identified by him as “acaste” names or names without a caste connotation. As an example of a change to an “acaste” name he cites the following: Panikkiyalage Somasiri was changed to Udadeniye Pathiranage Somasiri. In the assumed name, Panikkiyalage has been omitted for its obvious caste connotation.
Many “low castes” changed a part of their traditional name to make it prestigious. For example, Weledurayalayegedera Pina “Pina, the son of the Duraya, the drummer, residing in the house by the paddy field” was changed to Mangala Gamage Chandrasena Welagedera. The omission of “durayaleye” from the traditional name resulted in the name “Welagedera,” which is a prestigious Kandyan Goigama nam, Dr. de Silva says.
Name Change Among Tamils
Looking at name-change notices put in by Tamils in the Sinhalese newspapers, Dr.de Silva found that districts with a large percentage of Tamils such as Vavuniya, Jaffna, and Trincomalee yielded only a few name-change notifications. Batticaloa and Mannar did not have any. Perhaps among Tamils and Muslims, the family name did not seem to have any particular social prestige or caste connotations attached to it, he ventures to guess.
Tamils accounted for 6.5% of the total in his study of Sinhalese papers name-change notices. Of these, about 80% had sought Sinhala family names, mostly of the Goigama caste. Colombo accounted for the majority (28%); Ratnapura (11%), Gampaha (9%), Kalutara (8%), and Kandy (8%).
Dr. de Silva also notes that 85% of Tamils seeking a name-change in the four years under review had published their notifications between 1993 and 1995. In comparison, in 1976, it was only 15%. He explains this by pointing out that in the post-1983 anti-Tamil riot era marked by the war in the Tamil areas of the North and the mass displacement which occurred as a result, the Tamils had felt insecure and had assumed Sinhalese names to escape ethnic targeting.